Frieda Caplan was the “Kiwi Queen,” the founder and owner of Frieda’s Inc., the specialty produce company that introduced exotic fruits and vegetables including the kiwifruit, sugar snap peas, and mango to the U.S. Other unusual produce introduced or popularized by Caplan: alfalfa sprouts, habanero peppers, blood oranges, starfruit, turmeric, and hundreds more. Caplan was the first woman in the U.S. to own and operate a produce company. She wasn’t intimidated by the gender imbalance she experienced in her early days in the business: When she won an industry award for “Produce Man of the Year,” she refused to accept it until it was renamed “Produce Marketer of the Year.”
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Died: January 18, 2020 (Who else died on January 18?)
Details of death: Died at home in Los Alamitos, California at the age of 96.
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Selling us the produce we never knew we craved: When Caplan established her produce stand at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market in the early 1960s, no one was looking for unusual produce like spaghetti squash, Meyer lemons, and shiitake mushrooms. But when Caplan started selling them — and introduced the innovation of packaging unusual produce with information and recipes on the label — she created the American appetite for new and different fruits and vegetables. Her marketing techniques included selling odd fruits to the folks at “Star Trek” to be featured as “alien” fruit. If an item had a less-than-appealing name, she renamed it something catchy, like the Chinese gooseberry, which became the kiwifruit when she began selling it. That oddly fuzzy fruit was, when Caplan introduced it to the U.S. in the ‘60s, the first new produce item imported to the U.S. since the banana in the 1880s.
Notable quote: “I had a reputation of trying anything new. I couldn’t compete with all the boys on the big items, so I built the business selling things that were different.” —from a 2003 interview with the Pasadena Star-News
What people said about her: “Who the hell had heard of jicama or spaghetti squash? We were a meat and potatoes society in the 1960s. She changed our eating habits… Frieda was able to tap into aspirations that people had after the Second World War… something new and different other than mac ‘n’ cheese.” —Ben Faber, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor
“We are filled with sadness as our friend and legendary produce trailblazer, Frieda Rapoport Caplan, has passed at the age of 96 years young. As founder of Frieda’s Produce, Frieda changed the way America eats. She will be missed.” —Driscoll’s Berries
Full obituary: Los Angeles Times